No program has enjoyed a rise to the top of the college basketball world quite like Wichita State has over the past four years. A team that was best known for competing in the solid-yet-underwhelming Missouri Valley, the Shockers have become a household name — a program that’s now expected to continuously overachieve in a mid-major conference and be considered one of the best teams in the country, not just in its conference.
Welcome to Wichita State now, the first year post-Fred VanVleet/Ron Baker/Evan Wessel era. Wessel doesn’t get the recognition VanVleet and Baker do, but the three were the last remaining pieces from the Shockers’ incredible run to the 2013 Final Four.
Together, they were a grouping of teammates who helped carry a program from mediocrity into the category of the elite. Though they had success before that Final Four run, it was in April 2013 that Wichita State took the step that Creighton, their former Missouri Valley rival, couldn’t take. They put themselves into the public eye without a flashy high-scoring shooter. Instead, they played great team basketball, trusted each of their teammates and enjoyed the task of playing tough defense.
What many forget about that 2013 team is that the Shockers were one ill-timed jump ball call away from making it to the national championship game. They fell to eventual champion Louisville, but they did so much more than that.
Wichita State began to shed light on the little guys. Butler knocked the door off its hinges with its appearances in the title game in 2010 and 2011. The Shockers finished the job.
Some of the things the Shockers accomplished with VanVleet, Baker and Wessel are things elite programs strive for. If this were the NBA, it would be the Utah Jazz making the headlines while the New York Knicks were trying to keep up.
But now comes the hard part of Gregg Marshall and the Shockers program as a whole.
Those three players are gone, and while they’ve put Wichita State into the national spotlight, it’s the job of those who remain to continue to push the Shockers into the level of the elite, to preserve what has been built to this point.
Keeping Marshall in 2014 when he was a hot commodity on the coaching market was crucial. His stability helps keep the Shockers in place to keep the momentum moving forward. You don’t replace a Baker and a VanVleet easily, but doing so with Marshall at the helm is a little easier.
One benefit of Wichita State’s 2016-17 “rebuild” is that the foundation was laid last season, and it starts with Landry Shamet.
Though Shamet played in just three games last season due to injury, he showed flashes of why Marshall put him in place to take over without VanVleet around this season. Again, it was just three games, but he averaged almost nine points a game in that time.
There’s something to build on right there.
Along with Shamet, there’s Connor Frankamp, the sharpshooting wing who wasn’t able to show off his skills last season. Playing in just 28 games, Frankamp did shoot 35 percent from three last season, but he struggled to find his role in the Shocker offense. He walked into a system that was already in place when he became eligible. Now that he’ll have a full summer of knowing he’s going to play and will be a vital piece to the system, Frankamp should be more comfortable in his role with the team and play off his teammates.
There are a lot of options for Marshall to play around with in terms of a starting lineup. Markis McDuffie performed admirably last season in a time of need. The freshman played solid defense and proved he could put the ball in the basket when asked to do so.
Now a sophomore, a more expanded role is expected.
Then there’s the frontcourt, which features Shaquille Morris and Rashard Kelly. Neither put up impressive numbers last year, but combined they make a formidable pairing that will compete, get dirty and make the right play for Marshall.
Probably the biggest question facing the Shockers is who’s going to do the scoring? The answer is complicated, but also a little simple.
While Baker and VanVleet were the go-to guys, it’s not as if they were amazing scorers. Combined they averaged 26.2 points/game last season, so there is scoring that needs replacing, but it’s not a ton. Keep in mind that after those two, six players averaged between 8.7 and 6.1 points. Marshall has developed a system where everybody gets involved.
The star power isn’t there, but the talent and capability is.
Wichita State’s new era has already begun. How this plays out is up to the players and coaches that remain.
VanVleet, Baker and Wessel got the nation’s attention, but can the Shockers keep that spotlight?
We’ll find out this season.